NASA announced on April 19, 2016, that Aerojet Rocketdyne won contract worth $67 million for developing new electric propulsion for deep space exploration including Asteroid Redirect Mission.
In 2016 it could be easily spotted that electric propulsion is really in the center of the NASA attention as new propulsion for deep space exploration missions. Since 15 February 2016 when Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded with worth $2.5 million contract for developing new high output electric propulsion under Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP). It should not be surprising that next contracts seemed to be matter of time. NASA is probably satisfied from results of first contract and chose Aerojet Rocketdyne as a main contractor again. This time contract is worth $67 million and will last 36 months. Subject of the agreement is developing electric propulsion which could be used for deep space exploration and Asteroid Redirect Mission which aim is gathering material from asteroids and changing its trajectory using special spacecraft equipped with mining instruments and special grippers for landing on surface of the asteroid. Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) is concerned as part of the solar electric propulsion (SEP) which will be basically electric propulsion powered with solar arrays which could make possible even extremely long space missions. NASA is planning to use solar electric propulsion in the end of the next decade and use it in both robotic and manned missions including missions to Mars. According to Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD):
“Through this contract, NASA will be developing advanced electric propulsion elements for initial spaceflight applications, which will pave the way for an advanced solar electric propulsion demonstration mission by the end of the decade... ...Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions.”
In fact, contract signed recently represents very ambitious goals. In three years, Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop electric propulsion which will be ten times more efficient in terms of fuel consumption than regular chemical thrusters. It will deliver NASA complete solution which will include thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness. NASA will offer Aerojet Rocketdyne prototype of thruster and power processing unit developed by NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. They will be used by Aerojet as base for their own construction.
On picture above: electric thruster at work.